Monday, February 23, 2009

Three Progressivisms: Trying to Find Logic in Silver's "Rationalist/Radical" Dichotomy

Crossposted and slightly edited from Open Left.

This is a belated follow-up to Paul Rosenberg and David Sirota’s critiques of Nate Silver’s “Rationalist vs. Radical” progressivism. The dichotomies Silver laid out include:

Rationalist vs. Radical

Empirical vs. Normative

Sees politics as a battle of ideas vs. Sees politics as a battle of wills

Technocratic vs. Populist

Prone to elitism vs. Prone to demagoguery

Prone to co-optation vs. Difficult to organize

Optimistic vs. Pessimistic

Conversational vs. Action Oriented

The ensuing discussion focused mostly on how progressives think, or frame the world. I want to look, instead, at something different and potentially more important: how progressives have historically conceptualized ACTION.

In ongoing historical work towards a book I’m calling Social Class, Social Action, and the Failure of Progressive Democracy, I argue that there are actually three distinct forms of progressivism, all drawing from different interrelated aspects of middle-class culture: Administrative, Collaborative, and Personalist progressives. As with any categorizations, these have their own problems, but I think reflect key historical realities.

Not only do Silver’s comparisons miss this three-fold complexity, but he also mixes in working-class models of social action as well.

Below I lay out these three different progressive camps, and then return to Silver’s dichotomy, adding in the working-class influence as well.

Administrative Progressivism

This is the model that mostly won the day in the bureaucracies of the world after the turn of the 20th century. This is an expert model—“we know more than you so we should tell you what to do.”

At best, the administrative progressives envisioned a paternal process of social change, as those few who know best create a better world for the ignorant masses. At worst they bought into the “scientific management” movement promoted by Taylor, in which workers became “hands” and middle-class managers became the “minds” of industrial work. Even Taylor, however, seemed to believe that this mind/hands model would end up being best for everyone—because it was the most efficient model, everyone would end up getting more for less.

Collaborative Progressives

This group drew from the models of progressive classrooms, professional associations, and the less hierarchical relationships between white-collar workers. They envisioned a society designed around the collaborative method, seeking a flat “democratic” society in which everyone could participate equally in the development of a better world.

John Dewey, the most sophisticated proponent, acknowledged that he couldn’t figure out how this would work—in fact he showed pretty conclusively in The Public and Its Problems that it couldn’t work. But he and other collaborative progressives were unwilling to give up on their essentially utopian visions. He kept hoping that even though no one had ever been able to solve the problem of how a local model of collaboration would provide a structure to organize an enormous society, someone might solve it in the future.

Why wouldn’t he and other collaborative progressives give up in the face of overwhelming evidence that their vision was unworkable?

The crucial problem was one of social lag. If they gave in to a vision of the world that assumed the existence of unending conflict was an inevitable part of human society at least for the foreseeable future, as unions and other working-class movements did, they would have to teach people social practices that would ill prepare them to achieve the kind of utopia they wanted. Teaching people in society to "fight" would point them away from the kinds of collaborative practices they valued, and actually make it more difficult (perhaps impossible) to ever achieve their utopia.

Thus, in their classrooms and elsewhere, they were willing to take the risk (for the working class, among others) that not teaching them to fight in solidarity as mass collectives would doom them to long term oppression.

Personalist Progressives

The personalists emerged out of the romantic stream of thought in America. Like collaborative progressives, they sought to develop egalitarian communities, but they were less interested in joint work and collective action. Instead, they sought to develop social contexts in which each individual engaged authentically with every other, and educational context that sought to foster individual expression to the fullest extent possible. The personalists also envisioned a society built on this model, but didn’t worry too much about the specifics. They hoped that social change would just “happen” if they created the right kind of persons. But they mostly didn’t sweat the details too much.

Where the collaborative progressives focused on the need for people to work together on joint projects, the personalists focused on the importance of allowing people to actualize their individuality within egalitarian communities.

In their education and in their social theory, the personalists focus on a world without charismatic leaders, without leaders at all in the sense that a working-class union or other standard action organization would understand them. Theirs is a view of individual actualization within a "beloved community"--a term used by SNCC in the south, taken up by SDS in the North, and drawn from one of the 1920s personalists, Randolph Bourne. Interestingly, these folks were not professors but independent intellectuals, as were the writers of the 1960s, for whom the key thinker was Paul Goodman. There are some fascinating similarities across these two eras that have not been fully explored.

This romantic vision emerged most powerfully in the 20th century in the 1920s in the work of the "young intellectuals": Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford (who was active in the 60s) and Waldo Frank. Mostly forgotten. Then it reemerged in the 1960s in the highly intellectual and anti-leader organizing models of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for whom the key intellectual influences were Ella Baker and Paul Goodman.

The evidence of the impact of SNCC in the South is that it did have a somewhat transformative impact on what African Americans in some areas saw as "possible" for them, and did create a strong base for future organizing in some areas, but it did not (and was not supposed to) lead to mass action. In Birmingham, actually SNCC was reduced to begging Martin Luther King (who they disdained, and referred to as "the Lawd" in reference to their opposition to charismatic leaders) to "lead" people on marches. They didn't have the capacity to do so themselves. Importantly SNCC's effectiveness in pursuing its "beloved community" model largely resulted from their fairly sophisticated combination of collaborative and personalist visions.

In the North, in working-class white neighborhoods, SDS created the almost completely ineffectual ERAP organizations. These failed in large part because they were much more personalist and less “pragmatic” than SNCC, seeking to impose their leaderless vision on those they worked with. They had less of a focus on the pragmatics of joint action. Some groups could hardly ever get anything done--at one point according to Miller, they spent two days discussing whether they should take a day off and go to the beach. An iconic photograph shows one of their key "leaders" gazing intently into the lens, with everyone else falling asleep around her.

In fact, it is hard to imagine particularly effective, strictly personalist political movements. The communes of the counter-culture were probably the best examples of the social implications of personalism. It's no accident that personalists tend not to talk very concretely about social change. (At best, thinkers like Goodman embraced a kind of privileged anarchism, mostly evacuated of any socialist vision.)

Back to Silver

From the perspective I'm discussing, here, it seems clear that Silver is mixing different kinds of progressivism. For example, it is the personalists and not the collaborative or the administrative progressives that are “difficult to organize.” Other aspects of his dichotomy seem to refer to the administrative progressives. All progressives, for example, tend to be optimistic to a fault, although the administratives, of course, have little faith in “the people.”

From the way he frames his dichotomy, it seems like Silver is drawing from a particular interpretation of the experience of the 1960s. And his framing not only misunderstands the complexity of progressivism, it mixes in aspects of working-class culture as well. For example, no progressives ever saw politics as “a battle of wills.” Nor did the progressives ever try to “marshal an army” for social change as he later argues.

To some extent, Silver is mixing up the "personalist" progressives of the SDS and early SNCC era, and the later dogmatic leaders of the Black Power movement and groups like the Weathermen. It is informative to note that the Black Power movement was fundamentally (and explicitly) an urban working-class movement, and that it was the working-class that emerged as increasingly influential in the South (in the form of Deacons for Defense, for example). The early personalists were quite optimistic--they only became cynical later on, and that's when their strategic approach shifted--and many of them simply "dropped out."

And it also raises questions about what exactly Silver means by progressivism. In his discussion of his dichotomy, he equates Marxist perspectives with that of the progressives. But the progressives, as I understand them, have never really been Marxist. As fairly comfortable middle-class professionals, they have never had much interest in attacking capitalism directly. Were the Marxist ideologues who emerged late in the 1960s “progressives?” I don’t know the history of that aspect well enough to say, but I doubt it.

In this later post, he argues that he was actually talking about "populists" as his "radical" progressives, but that doesn't really capture the distinctions he laid out either. See Paul's detailed discussions of populism here and elsewhere.

Silver is mixing so much up in his analysis that I’m not really sure what he’s talking about.

If people are interested in a more nuanced discussion of intersections between different kinds of progressivism and working-class visions of action in the Civil Rights Movement, you can see this draft case study chapter from my book. Part of my goal in the case study is to show how these abstractions break down and become intertwined in unexpected ways as they play out in the real world.

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